One of the guilty pleasures that my wife and I have bonded over in the past year has been our discovery of the Food Network channel.
We've enjoyed everything from the competitions of "Iron Chef" to the restaurants explored in Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," to the educationally-themed "Unwrapped," to the reality show "The Next Food Network Star."
Our appreciation of food programming has branched beyond the Food Network. Over on the Travel Channel such similarly-themed shows as "Man Vs. Food" and "Bizarre Foods" have also earned our devotion.
I think the formula that makes these shows so much of a treat for us is as follows: likable hosts + delicious food = quality entertainment.
This formula is basically translated into a movie and kicked up in intensity with Nora Ephron's comedy "Julie and Julia," the tastiest treat of the summer. No film this season has given me such uninterrupted joy as this one.
The film combines and intertwines two narratives. The first takes place in Paris in the ‘40s and ‘50s and features future-famous chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband Paul Child (Stanley Tucci.) Julia is enthralled with France and French food in particular. She endeavors to find a hobby and eventually stumbles into cooking. This hobby soon turns into a career as she enrolls in cooking school, encounters other developing chefs, and sets about writing a French cookbook for Americans - a book that will eventually become Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Fifty years into the future Julie Powell (Amy Adams) finds herself in similar life circumstances with her husband Eric (Chris Messina) in New York City. Julie's life is fairly dull and often downright depressing - she's a cubicle dweller who takes calls from people filing claims for injuries related to 9/11. Trying to find something meaningful to do with her life she stumbles into the world of blogging. She creates a challenging project: to recreate all 524 of the recipes from Child's book in one year.
The film then jumps back and forth between the two women as both strive toward their goals with the support of their loving husbands.
And in that plot we have such a welcome change of pace from virtually every so-called "chick flick" on the market. We have two real women who are actually out trying to pursue meaningful careers. That's the focus of their lives, not trying to land the perfect man who will give them the perfect life.
And the men aren't the bad guys! To see actually functional married couples in a film almost seems like heresy within modern cinema. What? Couples can actually love and support one another? And it's here where I'm going to bestow a charitable spoiler. At no point in the film do either Julie or Julia's husbands cheat on them. I kept expecting that throughout the film - not because of anything the movie was doing but rather because that seems to be the convention of so many "chick flicks" these days.
Expect yet another Oscar nomination for Streep for her invocation of the spirit of Julia Child. Here Streep channels the exact opposite of the vile Sister Aloysius Beauvier from last year's "Doubt." Every moment she's on screen is an overwhelming delight. When this movie comes out on Blu Ray it will become one of the films I snatch up and rewatch just to spend time with a wonderful character.
Adams doesn't quite match Streep but that's acceptable given the legendary role of Child. Adams still creates a sympathetic character with whom audiences can connect. Her role as cubicle-imprisoned customer service rep should resonant for many viewers. (It certainly did for this one.)
The film has a third star, though: the French food made by Julie and Julia. The film manages to connect at a sensual level as it invokes taste and smell more than most movies. Films often forget to even think about taste and smell. Filmmakers know that they can't actually reproduce it physically (unless they're John Waters with the odorama cards of "Polyester") so it's rarely on the agenda with film. This is a mistake. A good film can still inspire thoughts of taste and smell in its audience through photographing the food well and the actors' performances. If the Food Network understands this then why can't more directors? "Julie and Julia" understands how effective this sensory technique can be and exploits it in order to forge a deeper connection with its audience.
This combination - an inspiring story, friendly characters, and delicious food - makes for the most joyous cinematic experience so far the year. I can't recommend "Julie and Julia" more enthusiastically.